November 14, 2010

Men’s Basketball Opening Weekend Sees Mixed Results

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ALBANY, N.Y. –– It was the question that had been on every fan’s mind since last March. After losing eight players to graduation –– including four starters and two former Ivy League Player of the Year award winners –– and the most influential coach in program history, what could be expected of the 2010-11 Bill Courtney-led Cornell men’s basketball team? With 8:34 remaining in the first half and the Red down, 22-10, to the University of Albany on Friday night, it seemed fans had an answer. Cornell looked nervous, inexperienced and outmatched against an Albany team that went just 7-25 a year ago –– seemingly the exact opposite type of performance that had been expected during the three previous championship seasons that had brought relevance to the Cornell basketball program.

Not so fast. Although Friday night’s Red team featured plenty of new faces and was without the team’s only returning starter from a year ago –– junior guard Chris Wroblewski –– it showed the same heart of years past and outscored the Great Danes, 25-15, to end the half en route to a 65-61 victory and a 1-0 record for the sixth straight year.

“It was a tough game for us. I think we came out a little nervous, a little hesitant,” said junior guard Andrew Ferry, who saw extended time due to Wroblewski’s absence. “It kind of showed throughout the whole game, but we had enough chemistry and … something inside us to grind out that win.”

But while the victory exhibited the team’s potential, a blowout loss to Seton Hall in its second game of the weekend on Sunday showed that the Red still has a lot of room for improvement before it can be considered in the same sentence as last year’s team.

So how does this year’s squad match up with the 2009-10 Sweet 16 Cinderella? Last year’s team –– led by Ryan Wittman ’10 –– was defined by the three-point shot, averaging over 22 attempts per game and making an NCAA-high 43.4 percent of those attempts. Friday night was no different, as Cornell netted 10 of 28 three-point shots. Guard Jonathan Gray led the barrage, drilling four of his six attempts from beyond the arc with his biggest conversion giving the Red a 58-54 lead with just more than six minutes remaining in the second half. The sophomore –– who just last year was a team manager –– finished with 12 points off the bench.

“Jonny Gray was huge,” Courtney said in a post-game press conference. “He stepped up big time.”

According to senior forward Adam Wire, Gray had been showing signs of promise far before Friday’s breakout performance.

“He’s been doing that against us all year when we’ve been practicing so we knew he could come in and do that,” Wire said.

Senior guard Max Groebe also contributed from deep, sinking three of five treys on his way to a team-high 15 points. Ferry had a little more trouble finding the bottom of the net, but still accumulated 12 points on three of 12 three-pointers. The junior transfer came through when it mattered the most, nailing a free throw with 2.5 seconds remaining to ice the game for the Red.

“I’m comfortable with the ball in my hands. … Whatever it takes to help the team win the game, I’m ready to do that,” Ferry said.

Another key piece to last year’s puzzle was big man Jeff Foote ’10. No, the Red did not send a 7-footer onto the floor Friday evening, but senior forward Aaron Osgood did his best Foote impression with a 14-point, 5-rebound effort.

Then there was the spark plug known as Louis Dale ’10. If the Red was a racecar often lapping its opponents a year ago, Dale was the driver; a role that Wire assumed Friday night. While the former and the latter are as different in every aspect of the game as any two players can be, there is no denying the similarities between last year’s spark plug and Friday night’s catalyst. Wire was all over the floor for the Red, diving on loose balls, corralling offensive boards, creating open shots for his teammates and drawing a comparison to the Tasmanian Devil from coach Courtney after the game.

“I felt pretty tired out there,” Wire laughed after the game. “But we had a lot of guys coming in to help out.”

The two points he scored can be deceiving, but the 11 rebounds (six offensive) and eight assists are an undeniable result of hustle and aggressiveness that had even Albany coach Will Brown beaming.

“I wish he were on the waiver wire and I could pick him up,” Brown half-joked in a post-game press conference. “I don’t even know if he scored tonight, but yeah, he was their best player.”

In fact, it was a play by Wire with 8:25 left in the first half that started the initial 15-5 run by the Red that closed the early hole the team had dug for itself. After returning to the game after a long rest and immediately turning the ball over, Wire exhibited a short memory in driving into the lane and finding Groebe for an easy lay-up with a perfect bounce-pass. From that point forward the Cornell, offense found its rhythm, as Groebe connected three more times –– twice from beyond the arc –– and Gray added a trey of his own to pull the Red within one point, 25-26. For the rest of the period, scores rained in from both squads as Cornell entered halftime down just two, 37-35.

The only break in the frantic run came at a scary moment with 5:35 left in the half, when Albany guard and leading scorer at the time, Mike Black, wildly drove down the lane for a lay-up attempt and was called for a charge while landing awkwardly on his left ankle. The result was an ankle sprain for the Great Danes’ best player and a key shift in the game’s momentum.

“[Mike Black] is our guy offensively,” Brown said. “And I don’t think they had an answer for Mike.”

The first seven minutes of the second half proceeded just as the first half had concluded, with Albany holding a 46-44 advantage with 13:47 to play. That was the last lead the home team would hold, as a three-ball from Ferry put the Red up a point. Gray added a three-pointer to extend the lead to six, but three straight buckets from Albany found the game tied once again at 52 apiece. Two more deep balls from Groebe and Gray put Cornell back in control and Ferry’s free throw with 2.5 seconds left shattered any hopes of a late-game rally by the Danes.

“I told [the coaches], ‘that’s the guy I want on the line,’” Courtney said. “It was a sense of relief.”

Tim Ambrose led all Albany scorers with 20 points off the bench, and guard Logan Aronhalt and forward Luke Devlin added 13 and 10 points, respectively. Black had scored 10 points for the Great Danes before leaving with the ankle injury. Errick Peck’s much anticipated starting debut for the Red was anticlimactic, as the sophomore forward finished with three points on 1 of 5 shooting.

Anticlimactic would be a good word to describe Cornell’s second game of the weekend, as well. For the second year in a row, the Seton Hall Pirates handed the Red its first loss of the season in a 92-68 rout on Sunday.

After breaking free on a 26-7 run midway through the first half, the Pirates cruised to victory against the Red. Guard Jeremy Hazell, who scored 33 points in last season’s defeat of Cornell, netted 28 points in Sunday’s encore performance, and Jeff Robinson contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds of his own. Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore added 13 points and 10 points, respectively, to round out the Pirates’ double-digit scorers.

Despite the loss, Osgood continued to establish himself as a low-post scoring threat. The senior scored a career-high 19 points on five of seven shooting and was the only Red player to reach double-digits. Cornell was without Wroblewski for the second-straight game due to his sprained ankle. Wroblewski scored 22 points against Seton Hall a season ago.

Original Author: Dan Froats